No. 1 South Carolina didn't only hold on to its undefeated season, it performed another note of dominance. The Gamecocks (25-0, 12-0 SEC) pulled away in the second half from No. 3 ranked LSU to win, 88-64, at home in a battle of the last two undefeated teams in Division I women's basketball and solidify their status as title favorites. It was the first time since 1993 that two SEC teams ranked in the top-5 faced off.
The tilt was billed as the game of the year and fittingly played hours before the Super Bowl kicked off in Arizona. The anticipation was high after Ohio State lost its first game of the season three weeks ago to leave the two SEC sides alone in the category. The contest is the only regular season matchup between the two and will likely determine the SEC regular season champion.
It was also a one-on-one matchup of two of the widely accepted national player of the year contenders in LSU's Angel Reese and South Carolina's Aliyah Boston, who is the reigning winner. Reese struggled against the length and talent of South Carolina's frontcourt and got into early foul trouble with an ill-advised hold of Boston on a press. She had a double-double in every game of the season before Sunday, but fell below her season averages (23.5 ppg/15.8 rpg) with 16 points (5-of-15) and four rebounds.
Boston was as efficient and dominant as always with 14 points (5-of-9) and nine rebounds, but it was junior Kamilla Cardoso, with a few assists from Boston, who came up huge in another strong game for the big. Cardoso created South Carolina's separation in the second half and finished with 18 points and 13 rebounds in 21 minutes.
Colonial Life Arena in Columbia, South Carolina, has ben sold out for this one since late January and the fans, donned in a mix of pink for the Play4Kay game and Gamecock scarlet, roared early and often. The Tigers, who have not played in many high-energy games and none in a hostile environment, came out flat and trailed by a season-high 11 points within four minutes. They clawed back within single digits, but could never overcome the deficit enough to force a close game. It was a 42-32 South Carolina lead at half and 64-48 heading into the final frame.
It was the first time two SEC teams met who were both 20-0 or better and also the first time two met that were 10-0 or better in conference play.
March Madness implications
The DI women's basketball selection committee announced its first top-16 reveal on Thursday night and South Carolina was the No. 1 overall seed. ESPN reported it was the one team the group did not needed to discuss. There is very little that could happen over the course of the next few weeks that would sway that. LSU is on the 2-seed line as the No. 5 team in the selection team's rankings and the program with the best chance currently at moving up into the 1-seed line.
The committee uses NET as one of its criteria for seeding teams in the tournament. It also balances availability of talent, bad losses, common opponents, competitive play, significant wins, strength of schedule/conference, amongst other aspects.
South Carolina's strength of schedule through games played heading into Sunday is ranked fourth by Massey and the Gamecocks have significant wins over Stanford, Maryland and UConn. They have not lost since the SEC tournament championship game a year ago.
LSU's strength of schedule through games played is ranked 59th by Massey. Four programs in the committee's top-16 list have Massey SOS above 20: Texas (21), Virginia Tech (26) and Villanova (47).
LSU's tournament resume
The Tigers played a light and easy non-conference schedule that included blowouts against Bellarmine (+75), Mississippi Valley (+70), Western Carolina (+73), Houston Christian (+54) and Northwestern State (+55). Mulkey said earlier in the season the schedule was so weak because she didn't know at the time of scheduling they'd roster Reese and the rest of the strong transfer group.
"We inherited a program that won nine basketball games, and if you think I am going to over-schedule before I know what I have, that would be a terrible mistake," Mulkey said in November, via Nola.com.
The SEC has also been an easier ride than in previous years and is ranked fifth in Massy Ratings strength of schedule behind the rest of the Power 5 conferences. LSU came into Sunday's contest having faced only one team ranked in the AP Top 25 with a win over then-No. 24 Arkansas, 69-45, in December. When they played again in mid-January, it was a three-point win and Arkansas had already fell out of the rankings.
It began a rough stretch for one of the best ranked teams in the country. Tennessee played LSU to the final possessions in a raucous Maravich Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Later that week, LSU narrowly escaped Georgia in overtime in an ugly offensive ending for the programs. And a week ago, Texas A&M nearly upset the Tigers as South Carolina put up a strong victory against then-No. 5 UConn on the road.